38 - Fresh Air

Although Nanjing is at 35ºN, because it has continental weather the winter averages a little above zero. It is not uncommon to have a temperature below zero at night. The weather forecasts are, by comparison with Britain, pretty definite affairs: this is because the weather comes such a very long way from the coast that it is more a case of reporting what there is on the way than predicting it. The weather systems are large and stable – in the sense that they are not going to change their nature. Thus, if it is raining, then it will rain. For many hours. Rain such as we see in Britain on a daily basis is rare in Nanjing; what I would call a damp day causes the locals to bring out their brollies and where I would not bother with a coat they will complain about the wet. What I call wet they call downpour – it is all a matter of scale.

In the summer the weather—no, climate is the better word—is hot. Hot like 30+º and I have experienced weeks where the lowest temperature in the whole 24 hours is still at 27ºC. Too hot for a Brit, to be honest. Living spaces are equipped with air conditioning units and the rule is that, north of the Yang-tse or the Huang He (I get confused which is the barrier, the northern one of the two, anyway), you may have heating in your house. South of this, you may not. So last year (January 2008) there was an unusual cold spell; 60 days or so of lying snow in Xi’an¹, widespread ice across Jiangsu and a million people stranded at the start of the year at the train station here. Yes, really; a million. Enough people to have births and deaths among the crowd during the problem period. The freeze happened right across the province and the roads were impassable for 30 hours or so. Everyone was stranded and we saw the very best of China as all hands turned to ‘solving the problem’, as they like to say (except in Mandarin, I guess it is yi wang da jin: to catch everything in one net).

But, because the summers are so long and hot, the buildings are equipped to cope with heat in a way that does not equip them for the cold. So a typical building has a (grand) doorway with no doors. My apartment building has, I discovered, heavy metal doors in the entrance hall (with appropriate heavy metal music playing, probably), which are used at night more for perceived security than actual warmth. The school buildings have corridors running outside the classrooms not unlike balconies, but with windows. Yet at the end of the corridor there is no door to seal the space off, but an open, exterior, staircase. So in the current cold spell the corridor is cold. In Xi’an (north of the line) the corridors were entirely open to the elements, facing an inner courtyard / atrium with sky above; very cold, since no window anywhere I have yet seen is double-glazed². So typically in winter in Xi’an there is a 20 degree difference across the doorway to one’s classroom. It is not much different in Nanjing.

So to the third element of this tale: at NFLS (Nanjing Foreign Language School) there is a cleaner to each floor of the building we inhabit. Each lady is on duty from about 0700 to around 1630. Her role is to keep the corridors clean, plus various nominated spaces on each floor, technically not including the classrooms (though I suspect they are doing those areas at weekends, since the rooms are suspiciously cleaner on Mondays). The kids are supposed to keep the rooms clean, but they fail on a daily basis to even approach the problem, partly due to what I might call a weak tutoring system. These cleaning ladies (an unusual sexism applies) have some odd habits: shortly after arrival each day they mop the floors, just nicely timing this to make all floors wet as staff arrive for the day – the first lesson is at 0745. So any existing dirt and all dirt on shoes is trampled all over everywhere for the next hour and so the ladies are all over the building, each rubbing the floor with a huge hairy mop some 60-80 cm wide. Eventually the floor is dry, but they often repeat the process later in the day. So the floor is often wet and slippery.

Element four: China has an air pollution problem. This, as I have said elsewhere, might be described as the fault of the West. That is because we Americans and Europeans are happy to buy manufactured goods from China and China is happy to be the great manufacturing nation that it is. But because we will buy from the cheapest source, everything is geared to production at the cheapest possible price, which means there is scant regard for health and safety issues. More on safety elsewhere (22 What is Safe?), but the air is bad. It is better in Nanjing than Xi’an (a bit less than half the days this year in Nanjing have had blue sky, where in Xi’an there were only a handful of blue-sky days in the whole year), but not good. Some of my running buddies actually find they don’t run well on Saturdays, blaming the air rather than the demon drink; certainly I see many folk with breathing problems and, judging by the medical testing I have observed, medical chest-related problems are endemic. And chronic.

So you can imagine how my staff (I love writing that) feel about the cleaning ladies’ action on arrival at the office, an action reflected across the nation as a national trait; on reaching any room that has had its doors and windows closed, they open the windows, almost whatever the weather, citing a need for ‘fresh air’. Or ‘fresh’ air, because fresh is the one thing it is not. Whatever the weather. So every morning there is a battle, almost silent, where the only sound beyond the clomp of (wet) feet is the swish of windows being closed (by foreign devils) and opened (by locals). This continues for much of the day. The cleaning ladies (the one on my floor is quite certain that she is the boss of the programme, not I) have begun to realise we would like some warmth, and have desisted (in mid-January) in our offices, but the corridor is where the war proper is waged.

Air-con units are heat pumps, so they can be used for warming rooms as well (or as badly, depending on your point of view) as cooling. Apparently I am a ‘cold’ person, setting the sensor on 20º where the locals will go for 25-30º. At 30º on the gauge (much less on the far side of any room) the kids slow down and I have found that 24º at the unit is the warmest setting that keeps the kids working, so it is the highest setting I use in ‘my’ classroom. My colleague sharing the office finds our room cold. Most of the locals habitually wear coats all day indoors; some of the kids in class today were wearing gloves until about ten and coats are worn all over school until after midday, when it has been warm enough recently to do without until about four, when it gets cold again. Sunset is about 17:00.

So, because of the cold, school uniform is a concept not an actuality. The habitual inclination for fresh air, if we can call it that, also covers up a multitude of building faults. The notion of air changes per hour (15 is a high figure in Britain, I seem to remember) here is a habit that brings air changes at a rate more similar to a day on the beach or in the hills than something belonging inside a building.

Because of this national habit, the typical Chinese resident is familiar with drastic changes in temperature when moving about. Yet this is not reflected in a volume of clothes being changed on moving between environments and one often sees people dressed entirely inappropriately for the weather they are out in. People who are outside all day and relatively still are dressed as you might expect; heavy coat, many layers, scant regard for fashion... but ambulatory folk on the street might be dressed in a way more akin to Friday night in a big European city—long light coat, heavy layers of lacquer of make-up and scantily garbed—i.e. dressed for fashion.

 DJS 20090112
 Air pollution essays:  104 & 106

 1   Snow lying on the ground, not telling untruths. Snow lying means it is perhaps old snow still there, ‘lying snow’ means it falls and stays, lying.

 2   Found in Qingdao in 2012, to collective surprise. That is why our (last) flat here is so warm.

© David Scoins 2017